Communication Currents

Communicating to Build Strong Inter-Organizational Networks: Communication-Based Business Insurance

February 1, 2014
Organizational Communication

For businesses and organizations, building networks with each other is a form of disaster planning. Organizational leaders’ commitment to building inter-organizational networks can be as vital as being insured against flood and theft. Getting information from the web of relationships in which organizations embed themselves—their social networks—proved to be an important, albeit informal, component of New Orleans organization and business survival kits in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Regardless of the size of the business—from large multinational corporations to small mom and pop shops—or the amount of financial resources, inter-organizational networks were critical in helping these disaster-struck businesses rebuild.

Network configuration is about more than simply who you know. It is about the type of information communication partners have and the extent to which they “share” their extended network. What organizational partners know about your organization matters when it comes to providing support after disaster. Do they know about the challenges your particular organization faces and what is involved to function on a day-to-day basis? Do your network partners know what your organization needs and have empathy for the challenges your particular business faces? 

Whom organizational partners know in their networks matters, too. Do you trust other organizations’ sources of knowledge (that is, those indirect sources of information you can access through your network partners)? Do you trust your network partners’ recommendations and referrals to others in their network? Are you embedded in a community that is filled with other organizations that are also connected to each other? In the wake of disaster, information cannot just flow through one key holder of resources. Good, reliable information flows in and around a community more swiftly when members of that community are interconnected and engaged in multiple groups across the community.

Communicating to Build Strong Inter-organizational Networks 

Establishing a network of strong, trusting relationships, having access to those networks, and reconnecting to those networks were important components of New Orleans’ business survival kits. Resilient organizations have been described as those able to bounce back from extreme conditions because of factors such as being able to mobilize resources to which they have access, having redundancies, being resourceful, and effectively communicating.

Our study showed how organizational resilience is a function of the social networks of disaster-struck organizations. From in-depth interviews with more than 50 New Orleans organization and business CEOs, executives, directors, owners—those leaders privy to their organizations’ decision making and actions—we learned about recovery actions and recreated their inter-organizational networks over time. We started with mapping their pre-storm networks, identifying networks during evacuation, and then identifying the networks again upon their immediate return and after they had resumed their organization’s normal operating procedures. Our data highlighted the way pre-disaster relationships and networking patterns played a vital role in post-disaster rebuilding. Implications suggest the social capital accrued through longstanding partnerships and efficient pre-disaster networking with like-minded and complementary organizations had a significant impact on resilience and post-disaster rebuilding.

We controlled for the fact that some organizations are insulated from unplanned events (e.g., corporations have the resource capacity to retain payroll) whereas others might be more vulnerable (e.g., a local café needs the week’s receipts to make payroll). Regardless of their holdings, the nature of organizations’ communication through their social networks mattered. Those organizations with established networks—made up of highly familiar relationships with a long history of repeated interaction—were more resilient. They reaped communication benefits by having more efficient and effective access to information and resources.  

Build Ties Before the Storm and Reconnect with Them ASAP  

Organizations that held strong ties in interconnected communities returned to those types of networking patterns and more swiftly ushered in their return to pre-disaster conditions. The sooner disaster-struck organizations made contact with their former partners, the more likely they showed signs of resilience. This finding belies past assertions that the vitality of a system relies on resource-independent organizations. Instead, established networks composed of organizations that share resources and information can lead to the flexibility associated with networked forms of organizing. Communicating in inter-organizational networks enabled swift recovery, regardless of the organizations’ resource holdings.

Specific contacts within a community of practice (e.g., professional associations and businesses that might also be competitors) as well as within and across the broader needs of such a community (e.g., suppliers, clients, non-profits) also were important. New Orleans organizations that forged relationships with multiple contacts within populations bolstered their network—that is, they had redundant ties. Organizational leaders are tasked with the quandary of deciding whether they should expend resources (time, people) to build up dense networks or invest in expanding their organization’s network through weaker ties. If an organization’s network is too efficient (minimal ties to maximally expand the network), then the focal organization is beholden to the few other organizations to which the focal organization is connected. On the other hand, too much redundancy could exhaust the focal organization’s resources.

In the case of disaster, the redundancy of links to particular organizational sectors appeared to be an advantage—redundancies paid off. For example, a local T-shirt retailer had multiple ties to other retailers, multiple ties to manufacturers, as well as multiple memberships in related professional associations. These redundancies paid off in terms of providing multiple sources of information sharing, problem solving, and access to different revenue sources to help the retailer sustain business during the time when tourists and other “drop in” customers were scarce.

Advantages of Cooperative Competitors 

An additional discovery was the extent to which similar organizations were connected in each other’s networks. Two museums, for example, may rely on the same resources—funding agencies, donors, clients—yet they also share information through networking with each other. These “cooperative competitors” remained an important component in the networks of those organizations that rebuilt most quickly. Indeed, one museum director noted her post-Katrina alliances with other museums became even stronger and more collaborative. However, those organizations that were more competitive rather than effectively networked with competitors showed signs they were not as resilient and could not rebuild as quickly. Networking within an organization’s population is important and worthy of organizations’ time and attention. These businesses that often are competitors did the “thinking” for their disaster-struck colleagues while the victims couldn’t think clearly on their own. Competitors came to the support of the disaster-struck businesses with helpful information and strategies in later phases of recovery.

The Disaster Toolkit: Communicating in Social Networks 

Our study underscored that the vitality of a community and the success of community-level rebuilding efforts depend on recognizing the needs of the community’s organizations and businesses, as well as its individual citizens. The community’s local businesses and organizations are, after all, the employers of the community and providers of goods and services, and their collaborations are part of both formal and social infrastructures of communities. Our findings underline organizations’ reliance on their professional communities across organizations and suggest that resource vulnerability can be compensated with strong networks. Organizations should recognize the power of communication relationships to stabilize their post-disaster circumstances, yet also ensure flexibility within their networks by having multiple ties within particular supporting organizational types.

About the author (s)

Marya L. Doerfel

Rutgers University

Associate Professor

Lisa V. Chewning

Pennsylvania State University

Assistant Professor

Chih-Hui Lai

University of Akron

Assistant Professor